An assessment of the role of nineteenth century aristocratic women in the running and management of the ‘big house’.
In this essay I will look at the role of aristocratic women in the management of the country houses in which they resided in Ireland during the nineteenth century. To explore this topic I will specifically examine their role under the headings of household management, child rearing and local community involvement. I intend to demonstrate that contrary to popular notions, aristocratic women played a key role in the management of the big house and by extension the maintenance of their families’ position within society. According to Tony Bernard “women….affected how houses were furnished, decorated and used and even when and in what style they were remodelled.” I will be drawing on sources that include Memorials of the Life and Character of Lady Osborne and some of her friends 1816-1848, Killadoon Papers: Letter from Mrs. Birmingham to Lord Leitrim 1808, Inchiquin Papers: correspondence from Sir Edward O’Brien, 4th Baronet, with his wife Lady Charlotte O’Brien between 1802 and 1831, correspondence of Lady Londonderry, between 1845 and 1855. I will also be drawing on reading from Peter Somerville Large, Tony Barnard, Terence Dooley, Rosemary Baird, K. D. Reynolds and Stella Tillyard.
First however, I will outline exactly what is understood by the ‘big house’ and specifically the big house in the Irish context. I will also define what I mean by nineteenth century aristocratic women. I will outline the perceived notions of these women, both contemporary and modern, and what was in fact the reality.
According to Terence Dooley, “the so-called 'big houses' of Ireland were the country homes of Irish landlords. They acquired this name simply because of their physical size. They ranged in size from the modest glebe houses which were to be found in most parishes to huge mansions”.
By the nineteenth century all big houses could claim to have a variety of functions, including serving as family homes, as the economic nerve centres of the large estates, as political gathering places, and as social spaces for dinner parties, concerts, musical evenings and balls. The building itself was the physical evidence of family continuity and a confident, obvious statement of ongoing rank and power.
As a family home the big house of the aristocracy served the immediate family of husband and wife, and their children. It also often served as home or occasional residence to other family members, perhaps unmarried siblings of the husband or wife, sometimes perhaps the parent(s) of either party and even occasionally a bachelor uncle or maiden aunt. In 1778 Lady Caroline Dawson, later countess of Portarlington, wrote to her sister that at Carton “You will be surprised when I tell you there are at present four generations in the house, the Duchess having her mother and grandmother pay her a visit, which with her children makes up four.” There were also numerous other members of the household, such as nursemaid, ladies maid, governess and tutor, all required to meet the family needs.
As an economic nerve centre, all the day-to-day business of managing the estate was conducted within the big house, usually between the lord and his agent. As a social space most big houses regularly served as entertainment centres for visiting friends, neighbours and relations. The lord was often a political representative and thus much political business was conducted within the house, both formally and informally. The nineteenth century aristocratic household had several functions therefore, as well as meaning and consequence beyond the servicing of the immediate family, much of which involved aristocratic women in a variety of activities, notably local community involvement. “Management of the household was regarded as the special province of women”.
The nineteenth century concept of woman as a goddess placed on a pedestal and...
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